Cult Movies: Dr Crippen got Donald Pleasence’s cult movie career off to a memorable start

Ralph extols the charms of one of the cult movie hero’s earliest star outings

Donald Pleasence made an early mark playing a notorious killer in Dr Crippen
Donald Pleasence made an early mark playing a notorious killer in Dr Crippen

THESE days, Donald Pleasence is rightly revered in cult movie circles for several reasons.

Firstly there’s his role as Dr Sam Loomis in the Halloween movies. That dead-eyed and sinister character sits proudly at the top table of iconic horror film creations. After that, he’s usually recalled for a variety of scene-stealing performances in everything from The Great Escape to Polanski’s Cul-De-Sac.

Personally, I have a particular fondness for his Dr Evil-influencing turn as Blofeld in You Only Live Twice, and I only have to hear those mellifluous yet slightly menacing tones to be reminded of the nightmare-inducing voice in Lonely Water, one of the public information films that haunted my childhood. But maybe that’s just me?

Back in the early 1960s, the Worksop-born Pleasence was simply a respected character actor. That was to change, however, when the lead role in a new true crime movie came his way.

Dr Crippen was a re-telling of the story of Doctor Hawley Harvey Crippen, one of the most famous criminals of the Edwardian age, who killed his wife and buried her in the basement of their boarding house.

Read more:

Pleasence starred opposite Coral Browne in the 1963 true crime horror Dr Crippen
Pleasence starred opposite Coral Browne in the 1963 true crime horror Dr Crippen

Originally released in 1963 and just re-issued by Umbrella films on Blu-ray, it’s a fairly straight-forward moral fable. Directed with little flair by Robert Lynn and shot in black and white by the legendary Nicolas Roeg, it sticks to a standard crime procedural format and never really delivers much in the way of shocks or thrills - but Pleasence’s performance as the mild-mannered doctor who commits the grisly crime in question is what really lifts this above the ordinary.

Consistently brow-beaten and humiliated by his brash and bullying wife, the timid GP sets out to pull off the “crime of the century” by poisoning her, dismembering her body and stashing the remains below their house.

Pleasence is superb as Crippen, all mousey mannerisms and hen-pecked peculiarity. His wife, played by the great Coral Browne, who would go on to become the real life wife of Vincent Price after meeting when Vinnie was frying her to death in Theatre Of Blood, is such a horrible piece of work you almost feel sympathy for Crippen as he takes his nasty revenge.

Dr Crippen has just been released on Blu-ray
Dr Crippen has just been released on Blu-ray

She boasts about her younger lovers and drives the humiliated Doctor into the arms of his secretary, played by the young Samantha Eggar. It’s a relationship that helps provide context for Crippen’s gruesome actions.

Great as Pleasence’s performance is, the film itself plods a bit at times, and is so bloodless it’s hard to see how Dr Crippen earned an X certificate in 1963. However, if you don’t know the full story of Crippen and how his downfall came about, it does the job nicely enough.

This new release chucks in a fair amount of added extras, from audio commentaries to replica lobby cards, to lure in the horror collector - but really, Dr Crippen is all about Pleasence and how he could turn the most mundane of movies into something pretty special just by adding his malevolent presence to proceedings.